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Commando (Lester, 1985)

I'm trying to picture what was going through James Horner's head as he composed this movie's soundtrack. I can picture him, sitting in the recording studio, shaking his head as he listened to each iteration of the score. No, no, no. More drum machine. More weird wind chimes. More wildly inappropriate sexy saxophone music. More moody synth undertone that doesn't mesh at all with any of the other instruments being used. More tense pan flute. More steel drums. Never mind that we're only on an island for the last third of the movie, we need more of the island vibes that only steel drums can provide. This has the kind of goofy ass soundtrack that they stopped giving movies as soon as the '90s kicked in, and it's all the better for it.

As for the movie itself, I don't know if this latest viewing provided any great new insights on my part, but I will note that for a movie that exemplifies the kind of excess we associate with '80s actioners, it's put together really tightly. This clocks in at ninety minutes and doesn't waste a moment. Even before we get to the legendary climax where our hero lays waste to an island paradise and seemingly massacres their entire army, we're constantly on the move, one great, punchy moment (both figuratively and literally) after another. Sneaking out of an airplane when the bad guy holding the hero is "dead tired". Beating the shit out of mall security guards when the hero's plan to kidnap a stewardess and force her to stalk the creepy guy who was harassing her earlier goes awry. Punching his way through a shitty motel. The list goes on. This is not a movie most would call stylish, but Mark L. Lester directs the proceedings with an almost visceral impact, so that each of these moments pop. When we get to the climax, the raw power of bullets being sprayed, bodies being shredded, their surroundings exploding into oblivion take on an overwhelming impact. And there's of course the famous suiting up scene, which codifies a certain fetishism in the genre around musculature and instruments of death (which would be notable subverted in Aliens and Predator in the years to follow). This is the ultimate '80s action movie.

Even though we take on the perspective of Arnold Schwarzenegger's cartoonishly muscular super-deadly he-man hero, from another perspective this plays like one of those "one crazy night" comedies like After Hours or Into the Night, where a perfectly ordinary member of society finds themselves unwillingly plunged into total late night madness. In that respect, Rae Dawn Chong proves effective as Arnie's co-star, her reactions to the escalating ludicrousness both lampshading the movie's excess but also providing a recognizably human perspective. And you get a bunch of fun supporting performances, like David Patrick Kelly being skeevy for no reason, Bill Duke getting a lot out of just a few words ("**** you, *******"), Dan Hedaya in racially questionable makeup, Vernon Wells with a pornstache as the main baddie. But really, Arnie is the key here, and the movie wouldn't work without him. I think the common take is that he's not much of an actor, but I wonder who else could have played with such a reality-defining combination of physical stature and lethal prowess and manage to imbue him with both sympathy and a sense of humour? The fact is, few others deliver one-liners this well.

All that being said, I'll try to pick apart two subtextual strains that stood out of to me more this time around. One, like a lot of movies of this era, the story is set in the context of American foreign policy. Arnie is a special forces colonel who made a lot of enemies around the world having run clandestine operations at the behest of his government. But the movie avoids overt jingoism, presenting the villains' motivations as a combination of blowback and personal grudges. Arnie has to operate without the support of his government, and is mistakenly believed to be the one causing havoc for much of the movie. (Which I guess he is, but they started it.) So I guess that's kind of interesting.

It also struck me with this viewing just how homoerotic the finale is. Earlier in the movie, Arnie makes a tired joke about "Girl George" that his daughter rolls her eyes at. And then you have Wells, who is cartoonishly evil in how much he loves to kill, and is gay-coded, both onscreen and through his casting (having played an unambiguously gay character in The Road Warrior). And you get that last scene where Arnie and Wells duke it out in a boiler room that might as well be a dungeon, the camera lovingly watching Wells pound into Arnie's glistening torso, and Arnie convincing Wells to drop his gun so they can fight up close. (He does this through the power of psychology. This is a movie for intellectuals, see.) A lot of '80s action movies have a strain a homoeroticism with their hardbody heroes but also a strain of homophobia in their use of stereotypes and slurs, but this one seems almost deliberately confrontational in this respect. Anyway, this is once again me as a straight dude trying to unpack queer subtext in a movie, so apologies for any dumbassed interpretations on my part.